At this point in his literary career, Norman Mailer really ought—at least as a source of metaphor—to Quit the Ring. He has, as they say, heart, a lot of heart, but even if he’s right—that Papa Hemingway threw him and his entire postwar generation in there to Settle It, and for the next Great American Novel it’s Mailer v. Saul Bellow, Mailer v. William Styron, Mailer v. Truman Capote, Mailer v. “all my near peers”—that kind of fight talk can get to be just too much heart. With Norman, it often is. It’s still half a joke, but he does tend to live in an increasingly pugilant universe. He’ll lose a tough marital decision to his third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyll, granddaughter of the late Lord Beaverbrook, and come out of the bruising divorce with a tight-lipped smile: “At least I can say I went fifteen rounds with the best light-heavyweight the British ever sent over.”
Or he’ll be down on his knees playing with his new son, Michael, by his present wife, actress Beverly Bentley, when he’ll suddenly thunder, “Okay, kid, I’m gonna butt heads with you! We’re gonna butt heads!”—even though the kid, at one year, is barely hanging onto the sides of his playpen as it is. Under the booze, he’s had—or tried to have—a lot of bad fights with mean strangers, but, sober, he goes right on cheerfully sparring in the parlor with wives, friends, interviewers, daughters, anybody who will trade a few open-handed cuffs with him.
He even has a low right-hand blow he likes to belt into a wall for the threatening detonations it sets off down “cancerous” hotel corridors, dropping the Americana or the Waldorf-Astoria right to its knees. Yet, like many real fighters—and too few novelists—he’s actually a very sweet man: often gentle, always generous, oddly formal, even slightly rabbinical in a tight pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, worn in private, that band the wildlife in each blue eye. So why—especially when he’s just picked up his biggest purse ever for his novel An American Dream (along with another terrible beating)—why, at age forty-two, putting on a little extra gut, a paterfamilias with five children by four different wives—why does he bother to keep at it? He was never really built for the fight game, despite the shuffling Carmen Basilio gait he now effects. He’s far too stocky, and last month, after getting in shape and going three whimsical rounds with his friend, light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres, he managed to brush Jose’s forehead exactly once in seven minutes of hard trying.
“I couldn’t have broken an egg.” His best sport is actually thumb-wrestling. There he’s a natural, unbeaten in American competition except once by the wily Latin thumb of a visiting Mexican bullfighter. So why all those tricky head movements slipping invisible punches during ordinary conversation, or the long, mad stares across parties to whammy any man or lady he chooses to think is going up against him? Why never a minute’s rest between rounds? And why does Norman even move into a sort of fighter’s crouch just sitting down to talk to you in a chair?
Frankly, to suck you in.
Very deceptive, that sedentary crouch. All part of a banal mime that Norman is continually staging-but for a purpose—playing a role that might have been written for him by Lillian Ross. He plants himself on the chair’s edge, feet out flat, knees spread wide, shoulders hunched, and then drops his hands. His left is cupped back on his hind knee, and his right hangs down between his thighs, loose at the wrist, right elbow resting on right knee, bringing his jug-eared, frizzle-capped head up Very Badly. He’s Open. Move in on him. Worry him about all his silly hobby-horses. His “existential politics.” His cancer theories, tracing the dread disease back to modern architecture, pent-up violence, psychic death, insanity within the body’s cells, and other absurd witcheries. His proposed opus The Psychology of the Orgy, still unwritten from a time he spent two years assiduously smoking pot to prepare himself to become “the Marx of psychology.”
Get In Close, because Norman has his Problems. But, as Jose Torres says, Norman also has very fast hands. “And a good left hook.” It’s that left that starts flicking off his knee as soon as the conversation begins to get to him—no, come to him—that way. Funny, punctuating, airy little jabs. “The bourgeois world says life consists of solving problems. Suppose that isn’t the case.” His voice is full of knucks, and clipped, doubly clipped, up one side by Brooklyn, down the other by Harvard ’43 “Suppose life consists entirely of a series of gambles.” Then, from way behind the jug ear, he hooks. “What if only cowards have problems?” He hangs the hook right up there in the air for all cowards to contemplate, and this particular lily-liver—quickly recalling that Norman Mailer always claimed The Deer Park was his best novel, better ’n The Naked and the Dead… but better ’n An American Dream, his first novel in ten years, better ’n that?—goes for short odds on his subject’s pride of authorship. Aw right, Mailer, what’s your best book now? But, of course, Norman loves that. That’s how he gets the most unlikely people all tied up in his own generally unwelcome concerns, like Hip or buggery in the T-formation. The mistake is ever fighting his style at all, even satirically. “I feel like the old Mafia racketeer,” he finally replies, dropping into one of his bits, this time Cosa Nostra in a Dunster House accent. “Lemme tell you, fel-la, all my activities bear investigation.”
Lemme tell you, they do. It’s the whole man or nothing. His chief activity—and far better if it were his only activity—has been writing four scattered novels and screeds of journalism out of a big, reckless talent. His detractors—who usually don’t bother to investigate—maintain that the only thing that talent ever really produced was The Naked and the Dead, his best-selling war novel that made the GI a kind of holy figure and the Gl’s “fuggin’” mother tongue a new vulgate in American letters. Some critics—bothering to investigate a lot further—believe that talent has extended itself artistically to encompass new and daring, if sometimes uneven, novelistic rhythms, especially in The Deer Park, and then moved out in an entirely new direction to create a confessional, mood-raking reportage that speaks a bolder prose than even his fiction—e.g., his 1957 proclamation on the White Negro or his most ungracious put-downs of Jackie Kennedy in I962 and Barry Goldwater in 1964.
If only the investigation could stop there. But Norman, out of a kind of divine pugnacity, won’t let it. He has continued to carry on, right in the shadow of that talent, this mime—a bellicose exercise of his own celebrity in pursuit of a violent, orgiastic dream of America the Hip. An American dream, as he calls his book, if hardly the American Dream. “I don’t know in the heart of me,” he has said, “if we’re a good nation or an evil nation,” but that hasn’t kept him from setting his own choices before the Nation in many a moral diatribe, choices between the safe “plague” of totalitarianism he feels is rotting the land and a liberty that would allow greater risks to be taken with sex, personal violence, and one’s own touch of madness. He has been proselytizing for a Way Out, even looking to the psychopath for a fresh track through the frozen emotions of the middle-class tundra. He has, in his own words, been “running for President… in the privacy of my mind.”
Since he chose to run in that particular district, his candidacy went mercifully unnoticed for some time. Inferentially, it first cropped up in a column on Hip he began writing for The Village Voice, a frontier newspaper he helped found in Greenwich Village ten years ago, though in 1956 he was shrewd enough to nominate Ernest Hemingway instead of himself. A few Villagers, however, were already wise to who really had Presidential ambitions. The column was roundly attacked for generalized egomania, and Norman finally killed it himself with a surly blow after deciding he was the victim of too many suspiciously Square typos. When it appeared in print that Hip was “predicated on… the nuisances of growth” instead of the way he wrote it, “the nuances of growth,” he departed the Voice. And then the lower-east Village itself, moving temporarily to Connecticut to ventilate his weary skull of its “over brilliance” from marijuana.
But he was soon back on the city turf again, advertising himself in a book called Advertisements for Myself. It is the sort of book that all candidates write a year or so before the Convention, except that Norman was openly boastful and ulteriorly humble, instead of the usual hypocritical reverse. That may be why, once again, the Highest Office escaped him in 1960. He had to back Kennedy after all, and did so in a booming, head-stunning propaganda piece called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” that he later claimed helped swing some of those 100,000 votes. At least it left the intellectuals no excuse for dismissing Kennedy as just another Clark Kent, which seemed to be a danger at the time. As for himself, he was now willing to settle for becoming Mayor of New York City. Only he was no longer running just in his mind. This time he was all set to announce his candidacy publicly, and a few days before that egregious entry into politics—five years away from the white nights of his last good writing on The Deer Park—he dropped suddenly down into his own personal hell. After his long flirtation with “the burning question of violence,” the flames licked out at him at last, and very nearly gutted him.
Norman could never be the regal title-holder. By nature, he is the nervous challenger: elegant, Iippy, relentless, timely, and always just short.
The Trouble—as his friends kindly call it—probably started way back during the early summer when Norman hailed a prowling squad car in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at 1:10 in the morning with loud hoots of “Taxi! Taxi!” and ended up with thirteen stitches in his head after a police beating administered on the way to his cell. Norman has a remarkably resilient skull—uncracked even after a neat half-moon dent was knocked into it some years back by a gang of Italian hoods who attacked him, in the middle of his own party, with a hammer—and an equally resilient temperament, always springing his latest grudges smoothly back into place, even those he holds against the police.
“I’m not the cop-hater I’m reputed to be,” he insists. “The policeman has an extraordinarily tortured psyche. He’s perhaps more tortured than the criminal.” He hadn’t resisted arrest. “I’m a cop manque myself.” But he did feel the Cape Cod Gestapo needed a thorough blasting, and determined to plead his own case against the Drunk and Disorderly charge in order to give it to them. At his trial, our future Mayor—weak on points of law but strong on characterization (particularly of one assailing cop whose nickname was “Cobra”) and personal narrative (“I was worried about myself when they began hitting me….They may have thought I was a dangerous beatnik; maybe they look at television too much”)—managed to get himself off, much to the distress of the local prosecutor, who also happened to be the chief of police, the most tortured cop in town.
It was a signal victory, but, unhappily, it only set him up for the debacle back in town. He determined to campaign against all the emotional frustration in New York City. He came forward with a grand solution to the problem of juvenile delinquency: medieval jousting tournaments in Central Park to give urban youth another outlet for “the violence, creativity, and sense of pageantry” that normally go into knocking over the local candy store. But then he got into a slight joust himself at a nightclub over a drink tab, and was once again hauled into court, this time for trying to knock over Birdland. Still, it all seemed very droll, so much like him, and friends at his pre-Mayoralty party on November 19th took the fights he was having that evening with crashers as part of a familiar, uncomfortable scene they would leave early.
But down on the street Norman even wanted to fight with his birthday guest, ex-middleweight Roger Donoghue. Donoghue politely backed off, worried to see Norman’s face already cut and bleeding a little. The next morning he called Norman up. Over the phone Norman simply said, “I wish you’d hit me.” Hard enough to stop him from going on. Because, around three in the morning, he’d come toward his wife, Adele, who was preparing for bed—“He didn’t say a word,” she later told a detective from her hospital bed, “he just came at me with a blank look on his face”—and stabbed her twice with a two-and-a-half-inch penknife. He barely missed her heart, and nothing was at all funny any more. He landed out on the borderline of sanity in the urban marches of Bellevue, and that whole murderous night, still kept a mystery, has its few clear, sad, brutal echoes of squandered feeling in his one book of verse, Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters), published two years after the incident:
So long as
But not much else, and the marriage broke up; and the damage to his children, to his work, to himself has run terribly high. “I lost any central purchase I had on the right to say what is happening. I’m parti pris. Now, when I argue the times are violent, they can say, well, look what he did. I destroyed forever the possibility of being the Jeremiah of our time.” And by what he considers an unreal act. (“I felt somehow it was phony,” he says, meaning the word quite literally. “It wasn’t me.” Nor was it him in the bleak role of society’s ward, under mental observation, when he was put in Bellevue on November 23. However, “As silly and stupid as society is, it does take care of you. The awful thing was that Bellevue wasn’t awful. The horrors weren’t that horrible. If it had been a Dickensian hellhole, I’d have come out stronger than ever, but”—after only seventeen days, when he had really been afraid that he would be there for possibly years—“I came out prematurely temperate.”
“It’s as if he really let go of something,” says his sister, Mrs. Barbara Alson. What he seems to have let go was the brutishness,
The demoralized extremes to which sheer illogic and the dares of Hip had forced him. “A great deal of the sweetness came back,” says Barbara. But as welcome as that temperance and sweetness are, they needn’t be exaggerated. Nobody would ever expect Norman to be without some ginger burning in his mouth. He would be like one of those heavily tranquilized patients at Bellevue whose zombiehood so appalled him. (“There is a miasma of death around them,” he claims. “I got a feeling absolutely of dead souls.”) He was bound to find some infernal rightness about the funky, depressing experience. “It’s like being transferred to another country that’s nicer and younger. Everybody has a certain natural comprehension of each other. Let’s just say I was delivered from bourgeois existence for three weeks.”
That sounds much more like the novelist who keeps calling himself the Champ, even though he’s really the Contender—which is not ranking him, but only styling him. Norman could never be the regal title-holder. By nature, he is the nervous challenger: elegant, Iippy, relentless, timely, and always just short. So he is now out of politics. “Maybe it’s enforced wisdom, but I can see how I’d have made an ass of myself as Mayor,” he admits temperately, sweetly. “Politics takes a very active, vigorous, superficial pessimism that I don’t have. I’d have picked the first guy off the street with a gleam in his eye.” But he goes right on contending elsewhere, incorrigibly, whether in vinous debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., about Red Dread (“Buckley’s the kind of right-winger who will call you a ‘sexual louse,’ but I don’t know a liberal who would let me take over the wheel of his forty-foot yacht”), or building a model of a pinnacled, sky- stepped, high-rise city for sixty thousand people out of $600 worth of Lego blocks to offer Lower Manhattan as its architectural salvation, or putting together a novel against a magazine deadline, like why try to avoid it?—like an eight-round, out-of-town, non-title bout for the Miami money, the way he did An American Dream.
“I hate to keep using these boxing images, but I was like a hungry fighter,” Norman describes the beginnings of that book. “Since I’d been married four times, I was quite justifiably paying for my past. I had to earn a lot of money in a year. That meant I had to do a novel, and I knew the only way I could write a novel in a year was as a serial. Otherwise I’d work it over too much, never get it done.” He’d just come back from the second Patterson-Liston fight in Las Vegas (which he’d secretly picked to be a fifteen-round draw: “I figured if I was right, I’d be a genius, but as usual my reverse genius was working for me”), and so the novel was going to be about “someone a little bit like me, who’d had an active life—but someone less successful—who takes a trip across the country with a girl to Las Vegas, and gets caught up in the fight.”
Thus was Stephen Rojack, “the one intellectual in America’s history with a DSC,” born of the bad cess from a ringside disappointment, which “began to go inward and proliferate,” and Esquire, Dial Press, Dell paperbacks, and Warner Brothers advanced nearly $150,000 to pay for gas and oil on Rojack’s trip out west, little suspecting that Norman’s hero would never even get through the Lincoln Tunnel. “Before I got to the end of the first part of the serial,” Norman admits, “I knew it wasn’t going to be about a guy on a trip to Las Vegas.” He was summering back in Provincetown, at peace again with the police (“Hey, Noormm,” he recalls one of the cops greeting him cheerily the summer after he stabbed Adele, “how was your winter?”) but apparently not with himself. He and Beverly were eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant—“the worst meal I’ve ever been through,” Beverly claims—with Norman in a deep, foul mood because “My hero, as I glimpsed him then, wanted to murder his wife.” Round one, and already in trouble. “To have your hero kill his wife in the first installment of an eight-part serial in Esquire is like taking off your clothes in Macy’s window. What do you do next? But finally I realized I was the one man in America who could do it. The clue to me is, I figure I’ve got as much physical courage as the next guy, but I’m profoundly afraid of being a moral coward.” Or, as his friend Jean Malaquais says, “He’s so afraid of being afraid that he just goes into any brawl.” He had to let Rojack strangle the bitch, or admit he was yellow as a writer.
So after Wong’s egg rolls, Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly Rojack—a girl not unlike Lady Jeanne—was dead, indeed she was dead. “It satisfied some absolute in me.” Back in New York, Anne Barry, his secretary, started calling around to the police morgues as “Susan Thompkins,” just in from California, busy writing her little short story, could they please tell her what a corpse would look like if it were thrown out a tenth-story window? That’s how the second installment ended, though not before Rojack, an amateur sexual athlete, had thrown a stupendous one at the German maid Ruta, sending her down like the last Nazi U-boat. In fact, Esquire could not print the necessary anal details. “I almost broke it off then. It really came very close to the edge.” But he finally agreed to a slight obfuscation, and puzzled installment buyers had to wait for the book to come out before they could find out exactly what perverse maneuver had sunk poor Ruta.
That’s how it went for the next six parts, Norman’s fluctuating moral courage contending with various obstacles put in the path of Rojack’s Progress. The third installment—a gray, grubby police interrogation—was written in “a towering depression” on almost sixty cigarettes a day, because Kennedy—whom Norman had insinuated into the narrative as a vaguely rival presence right in his opening sentence—had just been assassinated. But during the fourth part, things improved. “I finally obtained a much delayed divorce, and then Beverly and I got married.” He gave up cigarettes, which always changes his style, and wrote “a very lush, full love scene.” Only, because he’d made Deborah so evil and Rojack’s ambience so funky, he had to blacken Cherry’s character a little to match. “I had to make my nice sweet wife”—who used to be a weather girl on TV—“into a nightclub singer, and now everybody thinks she’s a member of the Mafia.”
Round five was another bad one. He went on Open End to debate again with Buckley, and got slaughtered like a hog. Buckley even called him “a freak,” which absolutely infuriated him. “I was ready to invite him to box three rounds for charity with me. Only I was professionally bound to finish this serial. I couldn’t stop and get in training. But I kept thinking what an ass I’d made of myself. I went back to smoking. That part”—all about Rojack’s various worlds coming apart, including his TV program—“was written in sheer decline.”
He didn’t really want to come out for the sixth. At least, not that month. He’d become enraptured with Cassius Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston at Miami, “the greatest thing since the Russian sputnik—I felt I could write one of the best things I’d ever written about that fight.” But Harold Hayes, editor of Esquire, said no, pushed him out of his corner, and even asked for a rewrite on the basis of a sloppy round. Then Norman picked up. “My son had the marvelously good manners to be born between the sixth and the seventh,” and so he was then ready to settle an old score with Jimmy Baldwin.
“It always burned in my gut, that comment by Baldwin that I didn’t know anything about the Negro. I felt Jimmy was lying, but it was up to me to prove it. So I tried to create an extraordinary Negro, an example of high Negritude.” That was Shago Martin, a kind of black White Negro, an emir in the cool jazz harem of New York (“My reason for first taking Negroes seriously was their elegance and style”), dominating a brutal, nerve-gelding scene with that perilous undercurrent of moral nausea that marks Norman’s best fiction to date.
And that brought up the eighth and final round, “the last quarter mile of a two-mile run.” Only the quarter mile turned out to be half a mile. “The Champ had paced himself badly.” He needed twice as many words—25,000 instead of the usual 12,000—to straighten out his characters in the final installment—“Sheer madness”—and at that, if both Shago and Cherry hadn’t gotten themselves killed, Rojack, by the logic of Norman’s dream, would still be up there on the parapets of the Waldorf-Astoria, circling Deborah’s father’s balcony railing for all eternity, like an ant on the lip of a drinking glass.
What a way to fight a novel. Still it clearly survives its serial production, and that is not the source of the offense it seems to have given the critics. Rather, as usual, his seamy aperfus, at once both sensual and miragy, shock a certain routinely sedate literary taste. “I just think I have a different way of looking at things,” he argues. “It’s not shocking to me. I like to think it’ll eventually be recognized as—that dreadful word—‘healthy.’ ” The odors in the novel, for instance, most of them stenches, foul whiffs of the alley, establishing a kind of narrative mephitis caught by the most infallible nose in American letters since Bugle Ann. “I used the sense of smell because it’s the closest to the sense of dream,” he insists. “It gives you that same depth that you get in a dream. But it is the most shocking sense. All bourgeois society now seems to be built on that one abstention. You never mention odors. It’s the last fortress of the genteel world—no, that’s not right… the last Federal Reserve Bank of the genteel world. But I like to think they’re upset because I’m on to something.”
A far more damaging reaction to the book, however, has been a know-it-all attitude among critics that they are finally on to him. Norman Mailer is just writing about his own stew, the runs, and Rojack is nothing but a wordy apologist for own horror-comic-book notoriety. Admittedly, he has left himself wide open for this put-down. An American Dream is spooked with ex-wifery, old quarrels, abandoned rentals, stale headlines, emotion recollected in volatility, and characters that, in a phrase he likes from Graham Greene, are not so much “well drawn” as “well dragged.”
Yet the argument is just too pat. Rojack is dismissed out of hand because Norman Mailer can be dismissed out of hand on the basis of what he wrote about Rojack. Exiguous and circular, and Norman himself simply will not fit into that thin a round. “I’m always amazed,” says his sister, “coming from the same family, by the whole strain of Norman’s writing. He’s really out of a different level of consciousness than anything in his life or background. There’s really an almost orphaned quality about his heroes.”
At least after The Naked and the Dead that is true. It is still a little bit of Norman’s Brooklyn in Private Goldstein, and some of his Harvard in Lieutenant, the past simply ceases to exist for his subsequent protagonists. Michael Lovett in Barbary Shore begins in amnesia right from his opening sentence: “Probably I was in the war.” Sergius O’Shaugnessy in The Deer Park is stock Irish, orphaned, and impotent as he starts out to make a new life, away from napalm bombing runs on North Korea, out in a movie resort much like Palm Springs. And Rojack? “Norman told me he had a past all worked out for Rojack,” Donoghue recalls, “but he said he just didn’t have room to put it in.” The cramped quarters of the modern psyche. Norman even has a strong proclivity to drop away his own past with a quick, all-too-facile remark: “My ideas come from one place, and my background from another place.” But while that kind of inner divorce could well suit a character like Rojack, it doesn’t really quite fit Norman’s case. There is one small detail that catches him up. Those two “places” are now only a block away from each other.
Norman lives and writes and sometimes muses on the top floor of an apartment house he bought in 1959, overlooking the East River from the most nautically appointed duplex in Brooklyn Heights, a quiet residential promontory above the Flatbush din of Brooklyn itself. Eight bells sound softly on the brass ship’s clock over the kitchen, and the Cap’n, standing near the dismantled engine-room telegraph beside his bookshelves, gazes out upon the busy shipping lanes. An awesome mercantile sight, and to enlarge his view by several decks, Norman designed for himself a lofty, tenting, glass-and-wood gable that he pushed right through his roof like a small pyramid.
Inside this structure, it is like a ship’s forecastle. There are many different ways to reach many upper levels, but none of them easy: climbing ropes, boarding nets, trapezes, deck ladder, catwalks, and, for those who wish to rest halfway, a Pawley s Island rope hammock slung between two beams over the suspended, dried-out skeletons of dead sea skates that roil like in the cross-ventilation below. Around the slanting sides, at heights, are bunks for his kids when they come to visit, cantilevered settees, stereo implacements, and a glassed-in observation deck with a loveseat and greenery and vines entwining a brown nude in a painting by Mrs. Donoghue.
But this is still far, far beneath Norman’s carrel, which is tucked way up under the peak of the gable, its only ingress being a six-inch-wide plank across the long drop down to the patrolling sea skates below. A lot of important people have bothered to inch their way across that plank for a visit, but what Norman really appreciates is any cat sure-footed enough to cool it without using the handholds along the gable roof. That somehow establishes more psychic right to intrude upon his crow’s nest, a solitary eminence that looks out on the world like the eye atop the pyramid in the Great Seal on the dollar bill. Here is where he works, though at the moment he is resting from his labors. Nothing much around but some scrawled sheets of lined notebook paper that look strangely like seventh-grade homework. Norman has been taking Latin lessons. Puer, pueris, pueri, puerum, puero…
But back down on the terra firma of Brooklyn Heights, just around the corner and over a block on Willow Street, live Barney and Fanny Mailer in a snug, sofa-against-the-wall, sixth-floor apartment where, instead of the low harbor moans, they can sometimes hear their neighbor’s overloud TV. They both work. Barney, who immigrated from South Africa via London after helping do away with the Kaiser in World War I, is an accountant. Fanny, here a generation before him, now runs a nursing service that her sister started over in Manhattan. They are both diminutive people, and Barney’s original Yiddish-and-Tommy-Atkins accent has picked up the added muddle of Brooklynese. But together Mr. and Mrs. Mailer form an advanced salient of implacable loyalty for their two children, Norman and Barbara. “Whatever they wanted to do,” says Mrs. Mailer, “was all right with us.” She is also a kind of maternal time capsule. Every inch of Norman’s growing up (and Barbara’s) is somewhere with her in that apartment, in floppy scrapbooks or framed pictures or old blouse boxes tucked into the shelves under the bookcases her son’s books help fill.
“Norman likes people, but never for the good, right reasons. He likes them for their hidden combustibility.”
And from all the evidence accumulated by Brownie camera, it certainly looked as if it were going to be airplanes. “I was obsessed with model airplanes,” Norman admits. Fragile struts membraned with tissue paper under the stress of a powdered rubberband unknotting for takeoff. Some of the aircraft are almost as big as the aeronaut, who, all struts himself, looks as if he might be lifted aloft on the stumpy fans of his own jug ears. The prized picture is one of Norman with aviator Wiley Post. That was the farthest any adventure went during childhood. “One was more or less protected,” Barbara says of that secure Jewish territory a mile from Ebbets Field. “Violence was not acceptable.”
The family moved up from Flatbush to Crown Heights, and during the summers Fanny took the kids to Long Beach, New Jersey, where her father was in the hotel business and where Norman had been born on January 31, 1923. “When he was eight, I was already going to the library for him,” she remembers. “He was a child who had to be kept busy. I couldn’t go to the beach until the afternoons, so in the mornings I got him a notebook and told him to write a chapter a day.”
He was nine then, and An Invasion of Mars by Norman Kingsley Mailer goes on for 250 pages in a scudding, untrammeled hand. “Wanted for court-martial and murder and hated by both sides,” Norman’s blurb sets up a typical Mailer situation, “Captain Bob Porter and Private Bob Stein played their hand.” The skein of the tale was taken right off the radio serial with little literary imagination (“The Martians had reddish hair skin and eyes with high cheekbones. Compared to ordinary men they were weak and short”), but his knowledge of rocketry made up for it. In fact, Norman went untouched by any literary values right up through P.S. 161 and Brooklyn Boys High. “My idea of a good novel was Silas Marner.” He was going to be an aeronautical engineer, and the only reason he went to Harvard instead of M.I.T. is that M.I.T. wanted him to go a year to prep school because he was still only sixteen.
But at Harvard, two months before he turned seventeen, out of the Naturalistic lump of Studs Lonigan, U.S.A., and The Grapes of Wrath, he “formed the desire to be a major writer.” Quite suddenly, and naively. Farrell, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck. “I didn’t know they existed.” And from then on, except for going ahead with his engineering courses instead of switching to English, he was the quintessential college writing student: precocious, prolific, imitative, and published at eighteen, when he won Whit Burnett’s Story Magazine college contest with a short story called “The Greatest Thing in the World,” based on a brief bit of hitch-hiking he’d dared to do. Not so much bad Hemingway as equal Albert Maltz. But it meant that “the faraway, all-powerful and fabulous world of New York publishing—which, of course, I saw with Thomas Wolfe’s eyes-had said ‘yes’ to me.”
He turned out an incredible volume of work as a undergraduate, a hopeless novel about the Jews in Brooklyn, stories for the Harvard Advocate, a war novella filched stylistically from Andre Malraux called A Calculus at Heaven (published in Edwin Seaver’s Cross-Section), and 600 pages of another novel called A Transit to Narcissus, based on a previously written play entitled, indeed, The Naked and the Dead. The only trouble, unbelievably, considering all that output, was that, like so many college writers, “I had nothing particular to write about.”
He’d tried to make up for that lack during his junior summer by going to work in a state mental hospital in Boston. That was the “experience” behind A Transit to Narcissus, a novel with an Intellectual Structure. “I had the idea the entire world was moving toward narcissism.” He lasted only one week at the hospital, an “experience” that is really much more significant for the absolute loathing it gave him for insane asylums. “I was assigned to the most violent ward. The place was unbelievably understaffed. Sixty-five hours a week for nineteen dollars. Two of us took care of sixty patients. The other hack told me the way we handled fights was to wait until one guy beat the other guy up, and then both jump the guy who won.
“After about four days, the big thing blew. A colored kid went ape, a kid I knew, in another ward. He’d broken a table, and he had the two legs in each hand for clubs. The attendants were moving in on him with mattresses, trying to smother him back into a corner. But he broke through, and I tackled him.” A skill picked up from House football. “Then they closed in on him and took turns beating him until they knocked him unconscious, which took a while because he was tough. I didn’t hit him, but I knew I was perhaps three months away from that kind of thing. I quit.”
By this time he was already involved with another would-be writer, a girl from Boston College named Beatrice Silverman, whom he’d met at a Boston Symphony concert. They were married just before they both went into the service, Norman into the Army six months after graduation and Bea into the Waves. One of the sources of The Naked and the Dead was the letters he wrote to his wife when he finally got to the Pacific.
“I kept my diary writing to Bea. I wrote her four and five letters a week. In the middle of a letter I’d put down a whole page of notes. We were moving around so much there just was no way of keeping it otherwise.” If it sounds terribly deliberate, Norman had long ago made his most callous literary calculation; forty-eight hours after Pearl Harbor, when other young men were wondering how to fight or goldbrick the war, “I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific.”
He figured Europe, but typical GI luck sent him to the Pacific into all the wrong job slots. Trained as a surveyor for the artillery, he went ashore during the invasion of Luzon to man a typewriter in quintuplicate, and then, since he was a lousy typist, went farther behind the lines as an interpreter of aerial photographs. Finally he got himself volunteered out of these cushy deals to go after the combat experience he obviously needed to write a great war novel. He went into the Philippine mountains with a reconnaissance platoon in th 112thArmored Cavalry Regiment, a Texas National Guard outfit, full of Southern country boys who weren’t too friendly toward replacements like Mailer. “We can’t all be poets!” one lieutenant snarled at him, getting his job designation wrong again. One night he went over to a foxhole to meet another Jew from St. Louis and found a man named Francis Irby Gwaltney from nowhere in Arkansas. Red hair and beak nose. Norman was all set to write him off as just another fuggin’ redneck but discovered instead that Gwaltney was another aspiring novelist.
“We stayed up all night talking,” says Gwaltney of that first meeting in the foxhole. “About Thomas Wolfe. And Mailer had to go out on patrol the next day.” Already Norman was burning up his inexhaustible nervous energy around the clock, but back then “ ‘scrawny’ was the best word for him. He was very gentle, shy, quiet, not at all aggressive. It must be a burden for him to be aggressive. He has to work hard to be that way. What impressed me was his wisdom more than his intelligence. I didn’t discover till later he was a Harvard graduate.” They became great buddies, and spent hours talking books. “He did. I didn’t. I hadn’t learned anything yet.”
“He’s one of the best conversationalists I’ve ever known,” Gwaltney claims but as for being any kind of an infantryman … “He was a brave soldier, but not a good one. He couldn’t see worth a damn. Nearsighted. He wore GI glasses when he read, but not otherwise, and he couldn’t hit anything with a rifle.” Still, he had that same crazy heedlessness-of-risk that so many clever people like to pooh-pooh as phony now. “It’s a miracle Mailer lived through the war. I remember he went out on an eight-day patrol with this screwball lieutenant we had, who messed them up. Several times. This lieutenant would get hysterical under fire. He’d stand up and look around and giggle.”
Back out of range, he and Gwaltney would practice describing such stalwart officers to each other for future novelistic Norman kept hearing tales about a three-day patrol behind enemy lines that had occurred just before he got with the outfit, which he began to flesh out with his own impressions from less glorious. “Going out on patrol every day in the Philippine sun, carrying a heavy pack on your back, that kind of ever present fatigue and diarrhea and just feeling generally awful, broke down any desire I had for action and adventure. Also the feeling that you’re going to be killed—I became emotionally convinced of it, and I didn’t care much any more what happened.”
All this, combined with the battlefield he’d picked up at at his desk jobs—“the way a kid picks up playing the piano”—formed the mass of detail that went into The Naked and the Dead. “Recognize any of it?” says Gwaltney, who later handled much the same material in his own novel, The Day the Century Ended. “I recognized all of it. Some characters, he didn’t even bother to change their names.”
But actually it wasn’t his physical ordeal in the Philippine jungles that launched him on the novel. Again, it was a moment of moral cowardice, really very minor, that set him off. In fact, the whole incident-out of which came the novel’s central scene, where General Cummings forces Lieutenant Hearn to pick up the cigarette butt he had deliberately crushed out on the general’s floor—was comic. During the occupation of Japan, Norman decided to escape further Army harassment by becoming a cook.
“He was the worst cook who ever lived,” says Gwaltney. “I mean, he was awful. Never did learn to separate the yellows from the whites of eggs.” But even as a bad cook, he finally made his stripes. Then, one day, he let his fuggin’ top sergeant know what he fuggin’ well thought of him. The sergeant reported him to the captain. “The captain ordered me to apologize. It was just a week before I was going home. So I crawfished the way Hearn did in the book.” But the apology filled him with moral revulsion, the way he always reacts whenever he does anything that smacks of trying to keep, rather than risk, his stripes.
“And the next morning I went to the captain and said I wanted to give the stripes back. But, because he was the kind of man he was, he said, ‘You’re not giving them back. I’m taking them back.’ That was when the keel was laid for The Naked and the Dead.”
Construction on that huge bark took place back in Brooklyn, in a two-room apartment where he and Bea, on $2,000 they’d saved from his allotment and her pay, went to work on their respective novels. Over the next fifteen months Norman wrote and rewrote seven hundred pages with an ease that never returned to him. It was bliss compared to “the leaden, liverish gloom, the godawful psychic dungeon” of The Deer Park. Indeed, it was quite a family affair. At night, Be and Norman would read each other what they’d written that day, and later on Barney and Fanny got to see sections of the manuscript.
“But, Norman, the language!” Mrs. Mailer kept telling her child. “The language!”
So did the publishers until Rinehart and Company agreed to do the book if Norman would take about a 25-percent cut in profanity. It was his only offer so far, so he took it, and then everybody—Bea, Norman, Barbara, Fanny, and Barney—went variously off to Europe. (Bea’s novel never found a publisher. “They all said it was dull. I gave up writing. I found out how hard it was.” She is now a psychiatrist in Mexico City.) Norman and Bea and Barbara were riding back from Italy in a Renault when they first found word at American Express in Nice of what was happening to The Naked and the Dead. “We got more and more hysterical reading the mail inside that car,” Barbara remembers. “Norman opened a cable and giggled, ‘Gee, I’m first on the best-seller list.’ ” He was twenty-five years old.
“Success,” he later wrote, was “a lobotomy to my past.” In one deep incision he went from the inferiority of “the third lousiest guy in a platoon of twelve—it got so I thought there wasn’t anything I could do as well as anybody else” to the euphoria of Word Famous Author. But he was still very much a scrawny kid whose brief, mostly uneventful life had been “mined and melted into the long reaches of that book.” He had to handle a strange depletion as well as a remarkable fulfillment.
“He once made a joke,” says his friend and political mentor Jean Malaquais of that time, “that he wanted to grow a big belly.” He has since come too close to doing just that, but back then it was an ironic plea for some weight of his own, some physical girth to help him hold his place. The grand thing is that he refused to crawfish and write a book he refers to as The Naked and the Dead Go to Japan. Instead, he stubbornly risked his stripes, probed for new directions his talent might take, and, meanwhile, filled in the emptiness with a lot of important distractions, the first of which was left-wing politics. The real reason he rushed back from Europe in 1948 was not his novel’s runaway success but his itch to work for Henry A. Wallace and the Progressive Party.
His own too swift success had robbed him of those floating, out-of-phase days, and now he wanted them back.
“I went around a lot for Wallace,” he says, but in the end “the Progressive Party, as an organization, was almost as stupid as the Army.” It was Malaquais, the anti-Stalinist Marxist with two decades of cerebral French Socialist politics behind him, who helped Norman out of his intellectual quandary. “He discovered all by himself that they had exploited him,” Malaquais says, “but he wanted to use me for a checkpoint.” They had long, abstruse discussions about Marxism, and once Norman brought along a Communist economist for Malaquais to pull apart, just to satisfy himself that Malaquais could take care of himself in a dialectical alley fight. Then, in 1949, there was a Russian-American colloquium at the Waldorf-Astoria called the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace that Norman had agreed to sponsor. He was to speak at one of the afternoon panels. “I didn’t know what he was going to say,” recalls Malaquais, who was mortified that the Communists were making such use of him. “I told him there was no such a thing like a ‘peace conference.’ There is no such a thing as ‘peace.’ Absolutely an embezzlement. There are only lulls between wars.”
All afternoon the audience kept shouting for “Mailer! “ When he finally got up to speak, he turned very pale, and promptly announced himself to people who had been his good friends as “a Trojan horse.”
“I’m going to make myself more unpopular. I am afraid both the United States and the Soviet Union are moving toward state capitalism. There is no future in that. The two systems approach each other more clearly. All a writer can do is tell the truth as he sees it, and keep on writing. It is bad, perhaps, to inject this pessimism here, but it is the only way I can talk honestly.”
“He was booed,” says Malaquais. “They just booed him. It shows just how conditioned these people are.”
What Norman had said pretty much summed up his next novel, Barbary Shore, much of it written out in Hollywood—another distraction—where he went next under an avuncular arrangement with Samuel Goldwyn. “We were always sort of scolding each other.” He brought along Malaquais, who’d had some film experience and who was also translating The Naked and the Dead into French, and the two of them just about gave Goldwyn apoplexy with a movie treatment they did together. Then Norman tried to make the movie himself with Montgomery Clift and Charles Boyer. “I got caught up in that town,” he admits—cf. The Deer Park. “Everybody ends up wanting to make a movie because that’s all there is to do.”
However, he retreated back to Putney, Vermont, for the appearance of Barbary Shore, a tractarian political allegory that grows so abstract that its meaning is subsumed under an analphabetic symbol, a little circlet containing supposedly the pure Marxist spirit. Barbary Shore is chiefly memorable as a moral example; it was the only outright Socialist novel to appear, complete with a noxious FBI agent, during the political witching time of the early Fifties.
And then he suddenly broke with it all.
“Here he had this nice, big, white house in Vermont,” says Dan Wolf, publisher of The Village Voice. “He’d picked his surroundings. He was going to live the life of a normal, young American writer who had succeeded. He had no desire to put people down. Everyone liked him.” But then one night he suddenly showed up alone at Wolf’s apartment in the Village. “Norman was making one of his big moves.” He was breaking up with Bea, he needed a place to live, he desperately wanted what most writers want before they’re successful: the independence and freedom that can always be freshly imagined to exist in the Village. “I felt I belonged there.” His own too swift success had robbed him of those floating, out-of-phase days, and now he wanted them back.
He was even ready to junk the cold bulk of Das Kapital, though he will argue that he has always kept some hold on Marxism. “I’ve turned it inside out in my mind, but I’ve never lost it.” He’s only thrown away every materialistic element in it so that nothing remains but the dialectic. And he is very careless with that. For Norman, the dialectic is not so much an abstract intellectual instrument as a kind of Hip tool. Synthesis is that solid, living crunch heard at ringside. Opposites are styles, odors, sanities, bloods, plastics, song, psyches, or just head-on people. That very night, in fact, after a bottle lost considerable ground between them, Wolf introduced Norman to his antithesis.
“I think I’m gonna call this girl,” Wolf said, pretty drunk, and Norman said, “Why not?” It was around 11:30. She didn’t want to come out that late in the evening, as much as she’d love to meet Norman Mailer sometime. But Norman kept pressing. “Tell her I’ll pay for the cab.” Finally, Adele Morales, a Spanish-Peruvian painter who lived in a cold-water flat over on 16th Street and supported herself making store-window dummies, arrived. Ten minutes later Wolf passed out in the next room. When he revived the following morning, Norman and Adele were still up talking.
“That early period with Adele was probably his happiest time,” says Wolf. “She opened him up. He saw in her a direct with life.” It might have been the great Village love story Norman hadn’t turned his Hip dialectic on it. By then, to Wolf, “he’d stopped being concerned about being a writer and become much more concerned as a bringer of truth.” The novelist in him began to manipulate people instead of characters—and especially Adele—to fit the new moral schema that preoccupied him more and more.
“Norman likes people, but never for the good, right reasons,” Wolf claims. “He likes them for their hidden combustibility. For years now, I’ve kept him at a distance because there is that other side to him, which is a bully. It isn’t evil. He wants to do good. But he likes to kick off things in the unconscious.”
This is a lot less so today, when he is inclined to be very tender with anxious and uncertain people. But during his Village hegemony “almost everybody,” according to Judith Feiffer, wife of the cartoonist, “was an actor in some sort of Hip dream.”
Some of the dream was antic and harmless. Adele’s father, a former ring pro got him hooked on boxing by knocking him flat with a few solid punches. Then Norman became fascinated with a lady bullfighter named Betty Ford, though he found it hard “being with a girl who you knew had more guts than you did.” He had developed a theory that women had to be tough, and that was only one of the many transformations he tried to work upon Adele.
“Next to him, she became polished,” Malaquais says, on the good side, but Norman always tried to keep her right next to him. “He wouldn’t even let me talk to her privately,” says Wolf. At one point Norman became convinced she was an actress instead of a painter and, unhappily, convinced her too. The worst distortions, however—in both of them—took place as he moved out with her to the pot scene and the sexual anomie of mere orgiastic linkage. He was living up to his code that the worst violation of life is to play it safe, but he was also slipping into a profound depression down the slide area of Seconal. He tried to write about these things in The Deer Park—indeed his best novel—where the turbulent love affair between Elena, the transient amorosa, and Eitel, the disgraced movie director, was only a thin veil for his own drifting marriage to Adele. But the grim reception The Deer Park got—silly and bilious notices after it had gone to eight different publishing houses before G. P. Putnam’s Sons took—only deepened his gloom.
That was when he started hinting about his inner availability for President. “What he wanted at the time,” Wolf believes from his polemics in the Voice, “was a big explosion that would make the scene. He felt that if you just pressed the right button, all these people would come up from the underground.” When they didn’t, he was left alone at the bottom of the night. He and Adele were now a savage couple even in public. She had become almost a maenadic projection of his own views. “Norman finally got his Frankenstein monster,” several people have said of that union, and possibly, on that bleak and soul-sick November morn in 1960, he tried to do what Dr. Frankenstein felt compelled to do on the verges of the Arctic. Destroy his own creature.
That, however, can only be a guess, because there is only one thing that Norman has chosen to make utterly clear about the stabbing. “Let me say that what I did was by any measure awful. It still wasn’t insane.” On the Sunday of the incident, long counsel was taken among family and friends gathered in his apartment to decide what he should do. Overwhelmingly he was advised to put himself immediately under psychiatric care. He totally refused.
“My whole feeling was that prison was far better than the mental hospital,” he explains, recalling a loathing that goes all the way back to those few days as an orderly on the violent ward in Boston. “I felt, just generally, that any man who was at all sensitive, who spent a year in an asylum, would come out insane.” So he put himself deliberately in the way of arrest, waiting right outside Adele’s hospital room, along with Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, the penknife still in his coat pocket. “He was right, and at the time I didn’t think he was,” says Barbara, though it still seems to strike her as an individual case. “I think he had to do it that way.”
He was still sent to Bellevue upon arraignment, very much over his own protest. “It is important to me not to be sent automatically to some institution,” he told the magistrate. “I am a sane man. For the rest of my life my work will be considered the work of a man with a disordered mind.” But the doctor’s note to the magistrate said he was “having an acute paranoiac breakdown with delusional thinking, and [is] both homicidal and suicidal.” He was in a panic about ever getting out again.
“There’s nothing worse, more frustrating than trying to prove you’re sane. The more you try to present yourself as rational, calm, the more divorced you supposedly are from your act. The more alienated, and therefore the more insane.” But a doctor named Jordan Lachman “had the guts to let me out”—though Dr. Lachman, of course, says it was a decision of the whole board—and eventually, after Adele refused to make a complaint, he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence.
So he came out of it adjudged responsible—even if criminally responsible—for his own acts. That was very important to him. He doesn’t mind being considered “mad” in the way, for instance, that Prince Mushkin in The Idiot is regarded by polite society as a crazy fool. Indeed, he goes right ahead even now behaving like a kind of Mushkin. The YMHA rings down its curtain in the middle of his poetry reading—its first such extreme action in twenty-five years-on grounds of obscenity, and out in Chicago, Norman still picks Patterson to win in the sixth even after Liston has knocked him out, and then whispers drunkenly in Sonny’s ear, “I’m pulling this caper for a reason. I know a way to build the next fight from a $200,000 dog in Miami to a $2,000,000 gate in New York.”
And since Adele he has married two more lovely ladies—“Let’s face it. They’re the mysteries. We’re just the satellites”—in a holy haste that lost him any rights to his daughter, Kate, by Lady Jeanne. Sure he’s a nut. But that is quite different from being adjudged legally insane, or even being called “a freak” in near earnest by Buckley. That is what enrages and frightens him. “To be good,” he feels, “and then to be left with the impression that one is bad is the tragedy of life.”
And he is good. Not just reckless and talented, but genuinely humane. “He’s clean,” Malaquais says, making the word sound like a ping against crystal. “He’s the cleanest human being you’ll ever meet.” And this shows even in those pursuits that seem to be his most tiresome follies. His mime of Champ, for instance, with its endless boxing images is an intellectual bore, but his love for the sport itself is no literary affectation. Jose Torres is not some slick addition to the Champ’s entourage, but a real friend who, in the changing sociological pattern of Brooklyn, happens to live a few blocks away from where Norman grew up on Crown Heights. In fact, at one point, when it looked as if arrangements for Torres’ championship bid might collapse, Norman offered to put up all the money for the fight himself, even though it would have taken a little bit more than everything he had. It wasn’t necessary in the end, but there’s no doubt he was sincere.
On the night of that fight Norman was as sleekly lapelled as a promoter, but as excited as if he were wearing a second’s sweatshirt with Torres’ name on it. He gave a steak dinner for a few of his literary friends, whom he’d dragged out to Torres’ fight camp in New Jersey off and on all week, and then settled them all in ringside seats. By now they were converts. Norman Podhoretz—who originally had to be told why fighters rub resin on the soles of their shoes and how Cus D’Amato’s new punching machine functioned-began yelling, “It works! It works!” right from the first round. Norman followed Torres’ stalking of Willie Pastrana with intricate, nervous but barely noticeable head bobs, like a metronome keeping its tempo very much to itself. When Pastrana didn’t come out for the tenth round, a TKO, Norman (Prince Mushkin again) jumped into the ring. Torres was the first winner he’d picked in ages, if ever, and he threw the new champion an immense party afterward back on Brooklyn Heights.
“After all these years, I really don’t know which is more important sexually, the orgasm or the family. I know God and the devil are on opposite sides in this, but I don’t know which side is which.”
Norman’s parties are famous for their supposedly frivolous admixture of warring social types, but really most of his guests —rich, beat, straight, queer, black, white, or indigo—are very private people to him, knit somewhere into the late dawns of night-long friendships. He hates crashers. One of the initial troubles the night he stabbed Adele was the rough time he was having with strangers in his midst. “I was off my own turf”—in a new apartment on West 94th Street—“or probably the whole thing never would have happened.”
His party for Torres, happily, was back on his native turf, with a lot of intimates from his recent past entering cautiously behind the Big Names. Mitch Miller was there, but so was quiet, diminutive Dr. Lachman. Jimmy Baldwin was there, but so was Harry Grant, tending bar, one of several odd jobs that Norman had given him because he wanted to lend Harry a hand now that Harry was out too. “Harry was the first guy who spoke to me at Bellevue. Very important who that is.” Janice Rule was there, but so was a kooky, dead-pale, fragile-eyed girl whom Norman had actually gotten out of Bellevue by taking her as his ward. “I figured I owed one,” he explains, placating whatever spook released him so quickly from custody. “So I decided to go with her. She wasn’t that mad. She was being babied, so I scolded her, chewed her ass, to get herself out of there.” He visited her almost every day until her mother signed the girl over to him. “I thought it was going to be rough.” Once before he’d helped her when she was withdrawing from Seconal, but this time she’d slashed her wrists to get in. “But she turned out to be a marvelous housekeeper.” She cleaned Lady Jeanne’s crumpled marriage license out of the bottom of her abandoned closet, got Lady Jeanne’s sick maid Sadie back on her feet again, cooked mainly bargain-sale chickens to save money (Norman was briefly but thoroughly broke), and then took Norman’s advice and two of his tickets to go hear a guy lecture who Norman thought would be just right for her. He was. She came to the party married to him. Norman the matchmaker.
In fact, as the party literally twisted its way upward in a gyre of jazz from a riffing hallway combo (whose piano player Norman had gotten out of a Carolina jail the night before), as the guests began to lighten and rise to higher decks around the forecastle, as the host talked and thumb-wrestled and prepared butterfly bandages for somebody else’s cut head, there was a sense of the whole wee morning’s being the boozy nightbloom of his own inexhaustible cool. At three a.m. Torres finally arrived in tuxedo, and the Champ greeted the new champ in the lambency of a triumphant party.
“Most fighters have a feminine intelligence, but Torres has an executive intelligence,” Norman had said. “He’s the only man I know who’s as vain as a peacock, yet absolutely modest. That’s why I know he’s championship material.” In reply, Torres could only announce his preference for Norman Mailer over Ernest Hemingway. “Mailer is complicated and deep. Like me.” They embraced, hard, until the party broke their clinch.
The only thing that kept it at all in perspective was Barney. He was there, and somehow that brought around, even in the frenzy of the jazz-burned dawn, the memory of being just around the corner for an evening a few weeks back. It was an easy acquaintance, no hard points raised, nothing moot, only impressions of mother and father, until after dinner, out at a restaurant, Barney suddenly looked up and said, “Well, we’ve been waiting for you to ask us the Question.” A quick glance at Mrs. Mailer revealed she was also quite obviously waiting to be asked the Question. They were both primed for the tough, needling, reportorial query, and so many terrible possibilities popped to mind. What do you think of your son’s behavior on any number of raucous occasions? Why did he stab Adele? What have you harbored or stifled within the paternal breast as his eccentric career careened through such dizzying rounds of self-aggrandizement? What Question? Barney leaned forward, ready to be ruthless with himself. “Where,” he asked, “did Norman get his talent?” Of course. And Barney had the answer right at his fingertips. “From his maternal grandfather. A Talmudic scholar. How I loved that man!” Of course. And Mrs. Mailer was nodding now too, as if that answered the world forever about anything mysterious in her son’s existence. Especially when she added one more qualifying detail about the progenerative influence of the Talmudic grandfather. It isn’t just Norman. “Three of his grandsons,” she explained with utter concision, “went to Harvard.”
There is a school of thought that, taking such details into account, insists that Norman is really a Square. Some of his basic attitudes are conservative—“If it’s a question of broadening the roads or saving the trees, I’m for saving the trees”—or have grown more so in recent years. He is almost Catholic in his abhorrence of contraception, another of those modern insanities that he has concluded is “cancerous.” And he believes there is a profound tension emerging in his work between the radical and conservative attitudes toward sex.
“After all these years, I really don’t know which is more important sexually, the orgasm or the family. I know God and the devil are on opposite sides in this, but I don’t know which side is which.” There certainly is “a family man” in him. He is terrific with children, inventing new games and toys for them—and himself—teeter-totters and rooftop hideaways and, actually, the whole aerial circus he has set up under that gable atop Brooklyn Heights. He has, in short, a lot of the virtues of a Square with none of the malignancies, and his once wavy dark hair has tightened into gray curls that cover his head with a harsh and fateful dignity.
Yes, he could pass, but it would all come out again in the heat of any intemperate moment. The Contender steps forward and throws his stripes, and already, after something of a post-publication lull from An American Dream, he is actively attacking his Presidential rival over his Vietnam policy. “My guess about Mr. Johnson’s mind is that it took this long perspective on and saw we could have the war on poverty, prosperity, civil rights, et cetera, et cetera. Only there was just one trouble the whole program. It was ineffably dull, and nobody deep in his heart felt we were good enough. So he said, ‘Hot damn, we need a little pepper in this soup because I’m America’s cook.’”
That led to a greater intervention in Vietnam, which, at the same time, had to be offset by careful guidance of the domestic issue of civil rights. “He’s got a double open-ended action here. A bowl of hot water and a bowl of cold water. He has to have a way to shut off all those educated and highly purposeful black men, and at the same time he has to have a way to shut off the Pentagon. To control one, he uses the other. I think he’s the smartest President we’ve ever had. But nobody in America can say he’s a good man. And if he’s an evil man, God help us, because he’s insufferably vain.”
That kind of statement is not likely to advance him very far in his own “existential” candidacy, but really his chief reason for keeping up this Presidential rivalry is to keep himself intellectually honest. And the public bravado shores him up against the private terror of merely writing well. Actually, the money from An American Dream has given him the leeway of two or three years in which to do a hopefully major novel. And there is a moment in An American Dream when Rojack bursts out: “ ‘God,’ I wanted to pray, ‘let me love that girl, and become a father, and try to be a good man, and do some decent work. Yes, God.’ I was close to begging, ‘do not make me go back and back again to the charnel house of the moon.’ ” There’s no doubt—despite Norman’s favorite maxim from Andre Gide: “Please do not understand me too quickly”—that this can be taken as a personal plea for himself and Beverly and his new son.
In fact, it has been quoted back at him by sympathetic admirers—wishing it might be so—and there is no longer any question but that a public is beginning to emerge that has that kind of hope for him. Lately he has enjoyed a reception that could never have been accorded the one-book writer who did The Naked and the Dead when he was twenty-five. And it was not the Underground, either, that responded to him. Rather, it has been an inquiring, middle-class intelligentsia, intellectually childless too long, that sees it might just have to take a long chance on adopting an orphan like Norman, as enfant terrible as he is.
“I like him, but I disapprove of him,” Buckley has said about him, rather typically. “He’s a terribly good measure of the current disturbances in the air. A sort of lightning rod. Yet he does have a strange formality about him, doesn’t he? Despite the fact that he’s supposedly the god of spontaneity. A very sweet streak in him.” It causes people to want to defend him and his books and his pronouncements much the way that Sonny Liston handled Norman during the fumbling display he put on out in Chicago after the first Patterson-Liston fight. The press—the Goat, as Norman calls them—were all sending up a loud outcry against Norman’s drunken fantasies: “Shut the bum up.” But Liston leaned on everybody a little and said, one fighter to another, “No. Let the bum speak.” And then he reached out his hand. “Shake, bum.”
Hardly had that week’s issue of Life started to stack up at the newsstands when I received the following telegram from Provincetown, Massachusetts:
BROCK IT’S SO AWFUL I’M GOING TO READ IT TO YOU BIT BY BIT. IF YOU HAVE ANY HONOR, COME UP THIS WEEKEND, AND BRING YOUR DEAR WIFE ANN FOR PROTECTION
I remained lily-livered, due to any number of previous engagements, and didn’t go. Besides, after another telegram or two, and some phoning back and forth, Norman decided it was probably as good as I could do, I just didn’t really swing with him.
YOUR PIECE WAS AFFECTIONATE, YES. IT WAS ALSO FACTUALLY INACCURATE, IT VIOLATED CONFIDENCES, GELDED THE STRONGEST REMARKS, AND BYPASSED THE WORK. OR DID THE EDITORS DO THAT?
I hope I’ve corrected all the factual inaccuracies, noting here the birth of another son to himself and Beverly, to keep the family count straight. As for any violated confidences, I’m afraid these amount—as so often happens in journalism—to disclosures from other sources that the subject thought were still his own secrets. And as for any gelding, there were space problems, but his quoted remarks still look pretty well-hung to me. However, I’m not easy about his charge that I bypassed the work and feel honor-bound to say a word or two more about its ongoing impact, its steadily growing importance.
Twenty years ago I remember asking for The Naked and the Dead for Christmas, weird as that sounds. I still have my Yuletide copy with a penned inscription from, I suppose, Santa Claus: “The opinions of the author do not necessarily represent those of your father.” Increasingly that is so. But increasingly, for those I know who trail Norman by something less than a generation (he’d be our older Krazy Kat cousin, not our nut-brained uncle), this is less and less the case, and, often enough, not so at all.
I don’t mean we take him as the prophet, seer, and revelator he puts in such a hard claim to being. His writings, in the end, only pass for being mystical. What really proves them out is not his hallucinatory self-indulgence but his scenic powers, his grasp of fact, his dirty, lowdown hold on America. It would be ridiculous, for instance, to consider The Naked and the Dead anything like a seminal book. It is much more a breaking book, one that let the war stumble in upon the American literary imagination and bust up the place a bit. It Brought the News, as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, and Mailer has always tried to Bring the News, the hard news, ever since, even if his reputation sometimes damn near died in the attempt. I happen to feel that most of his work is also News That Stays News, as Ezra Pound once stated the test for literature. The only surprise to me is that the response to the News has so often been so tardy. Only after his most recent novel has been wildly dismissed, thoroughly trenched by the reviewers for that season’s big literary Dump-In, does it finally get read, appreciatively, for the Latest Headlines under all that offal.
I’m inclined to suspect that Norman’s scatology in Why Are We in Vietnam? has a touch of vengeance in it for all this past treatment. He stood right there and handed everybody, including the critics, the shitty end of the stick. Of course they beat him with it once again, but this time with the clean end. And even as the blows fell, they were less solid, more glancing, as if, a little earlier than usual, his detractors realized that he was “on to something,” to repeat one of his “gelded” remarks.
And then, with the publication of Armies of the Night, the blows suddenly, inexplicably, ceased altogether. It was almost eerie, the way the “inquiring, middle-class intelligentsia, intellectually childless too long” responded to this, his most egotistical performance to date. Having presumably licked all the hotels in town, Norman moved up a weight class to take on the Pentagon itself—and found just about everybody in his corner. I must admit that I thought he did a lot of windmilling during those 90,000 words on Himself on the March, but no old fan could help but be gratified to see the following he picked up among people who keep telling me they never knew he could write like that.
Still, an old fan also can’t help but study the finer points. If he was often wittier, sharper, quicker than ever, this time out, with just the right self-deprecatory feints, he was knowingly using a style that was meant for a better opponent. The Big One isn’t a building, not even the largest building in the world.
The Big One is still—forget the rest of the card—that promised novel.
[Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten]